The year was 1954. Nine days before Christmas. It was late in the evening and neither John Wickham, a cab driver, nor his wife, DeSylvia, a clothing-store cashier, had come home to their five children. At first the youngsters weren't too concerned. DeWayne Wickham, then an 8-year-old third-grader recalls, "For us, it was party time." But as the evening wore on, the oldest child, 13-year-old Andre, became increasingly worried. He stayed all night and it was he who answered the door when the police arrived early the next morning.
At first no one explained to the Wickham youngsters that their parents were dead. Family and friends flocked to the one-bedroom apartment in the 2300 block of Whittier Ave. in West Baltimore. Soon DeWayne's sister, Rise, overhead adults talking about murder. She whispered in his ear that their father had shot and killed their mother and then himself because he was upset about money problems.
Nearly four decades later, after he had long since blocked out many of his childhood memories, DeWayne Wickham began writing a book that would help him come to terms with that shattering event. The book, titled "Woodholme: A Black Man's Story of Growing Up Alone, was published this past spring by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It details Mr. Wickham's growing-up years in the South Baltimore community of Cherry Hill and his pivotal experiences as a teen-age caddy at the exclusive Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville.
During research for the 276-page memoir, Mr. Wickham, now a columnist for USA Today, read for the first time the Baltimore City Police Department's report about the details of his parents' death. He writes in the book: "At some point, in the early morning hours of December 17, 1954, my father parked his powder blue 1950 Plymouth station wagon next to the construction site of a new colored high school, pulled a .32 caliber revolver, and fired two shots -- one into the head, the other into the chest of his wife of thirteen years. Then he placed the gun against the right side of his head and pulled the trigger one last time."
"Here I am 38 years after the event," Mr. Wickham says. "I couldn't write that passage with the emotion people would want . . . because I'm finding out about the details for the first time."
John Wickham left a suicide note and a $20 money order for his mother, asking her to raise the children. In the note he said he was worried he could not afford Christmas presents for them.
DeWayne Wickham did not attend the funeral. "I was anticipating bogymen, ghosts, scary kinds of things," he says in a voice rising with emotion. "By not going, there was no closure. Emotionally, I was just left hanging."
It was decided by his mother's relatives that his sister and youngest brother, Myron, would live with two different aunts; his oldest brother, Andre, would live with his maternal grandmother, and DeWayne and his second oldest brother, Rodney, would live with their aunt and uncle, Annette and Theodore McClain. The couple already had five children, and the whole group was squeezed into a two-bedroom, public-housing unit in the 3200 block of Cherryland Road in Cherry Hill.
On a recent visit to Cherry Hill, Mr. Wickham, now 49, parked in front of the house. It sits near an open dump, and is surrounded by houses that are boarded up.
The Cherry Hill of today is considered a poor community. Twenty-five percent of its 11,000 residents do not have a high school diploma and 36 percent receive public assistance, according to city figures.
The Cherry Hill that Mr. Wickham remembers had poor, black, two-parent families. His aunt's house was in a "a very poor neighborhood, but it was a neighborhood -- that tended to reduce the impact of the poverty," he says. He recalls children zipping around on metal skates by day and adults sitting on stoops and talking to each other from across the street on summer nights.
His aunt and uncle worked hard to take care of their extended family, but the burden put a strain in their marriage. One day his uncle left and did not return. "I know I was a burden on [Aunt Annette]," says the soft-spoken Mr. Wickham. "I think in some ways, my brother and I cost her her marriage. There's obvious guilt there."
Almost six years after the Wickham boys came to live with her, Ms. McClain moved the family to West Baltimore. Though the family's new home on South Hilton Street was much larger and nicer, Mr. Wickham missed Cherry Hill, which he considered his home. There he had developed a supportive community of friends.
At his new school, Mr. Wickham says, a two-fold problem erupted. "One was the poverty that my family experienced, that caused me to literally wear the same clothes to school every day, and suffer the embarrassment of that," he says. "The other had to do with this obsessive fear that people would find out what happened to my parents and taunt me."